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Cosmic clues, buried in the Antarctic snow

A trench where micrometeorites are collected from snow, located near the CONCORDIA Antarctic station.
Image courtesy of J. Duprat CSNSM-CNRS

Researchers have found two micrometeorites—tiny particles that fell to Earth from space—preserved in the cold snow of Antarctica, and they say that their discovery could provide clues about how our solar system formed long ago. The micrometeorites, known as particles 19 and 119, were found near the center of the icy continent, buried in 40 to 55 year-old snow.

The CONCORDIA polar station located in central Antarctica.
Image courtesy of M. Munoz IPEV

Jean Duprat and a team of scientists examined the micrometeorites to find out what they were made of and where they came from. The researchers learned that particles 19 and 119 probably formed in our own solar system, rather than in an ancient, far-away interstellar dust cloud as scientists had once imagined.

The researchers say that these two micrometeorites contain extremely large amounts of carbon—and much more deuterium (a form of hydrogen) than anything here on Earth. Experts say that these organic materials normally only come from very far away in space, where molecular clouds gather to form new stars. However, these researchers were able to identify tiny crystals on the micrometeorites that indicate they formed much closer to our sun than researchers had thought.

All of these findings indicate that the micrometeorites from Antarctica, particles 19 and 119, contain a record of the colder regions of our early, developing solar system. In the future, these Antarctic micrometeorites might reveal how the very first organic materials arrived on Earth, long ago.